A Local Habitation and a Name
–William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
This time they didn’t wait until nightfall
To start talking about her. Why did Karen put you
On the floor, the pothos said from his place of honor
On the console table where two windows
Formed right angles, providing plenty of afternoon light.
She said I was burning from too much sun, the variegated
Hoya said. Why she couldn’t put me in the northern window
I don’t know. She shoves me aside now when she walks by
Doing her this and that. Certainly she’s not spending much time
Grooming us. Look at my leaves! The Christmas cactus spoke up,
Almost too softly to hear. She was embarrassed because this summer
She hadn’t yet bloomed, though usually she never stopped
Throwing out her small red flowers, like a bride’s maid.
This summer did me in too, she said.
Always thinking she’s doing a favor by putting us out
On the hot stoop. The others didn’t want to unduly complain
about their wet feet in undrained saucers. Not while Christmas was so upset.
At least your leaves aren’t burned, plain green hoya said.
Thanks, Christmas said, for not admitting how awful I look.
The jade plant, a newcomer from California who Karen met there
and who always looked fabulous with his sturdy teardrop leaves,
Said, maybe you’ll feel better if you got your withered leaves
Cut off. Quick, with Karen’s small scissors, you won’t feel a thing.
Variegated hoya said, I haven’t wanted to say, but there’s more.
I’ve been ill a long time. So many of my darling new leaves have fallen…
Young dracaena cut in. Better not to talk about it. The others
Couldn’t fail to notice that her own innocent inner leaves,
Which should have been gently arching and striped
In tender green and white were charcoal grey. Blasted,
The others thought. Blight. They wondered how contagious
It was and pulled themselves in, as if holding their breath,
A little tighter. A succulent who never revealed his name
Glanced across the room toward the French doors.
They look so much better than us, he said, his words catching.
Karen cares more for them. Two geraniums across the room
Called out, Oh surely not. We just thrive easier, that’s all.
The succulent went on, That begonia over there with the black leaves
Has flowers peeping over her shoulders. That is a comfort.
It’s so difficult to feel both jealousy and joy swirling together
Like the chocolate and vanilla frozen yogurt Karen prefers.
Their mistress walked into the room, carrying no watering can,
No refreshing draughts of fertilizer. She didn’t question
Why a broken stem of Christmas cactus lay on the floor, 1
She just shoved it in a glass of cold water. The others
Sighed in relief. She rescued my appendage, Christmas said.
She does care. The others chimed in, course she does.
When it suits her. You know how they are, hibberty-jibberty
All over the place. A human gives us a home. But they forget.
Around the house I wear flipflops called Earth,
foam blasted polyurethane to mimic my foot
walking on grass or tender soil or white sand.
They’re old, grayed, with a plastic spike
Between big and next toe. Purpose driven clunkiness.
My mother would never had worn them.
Her house slippers were periwinkle blue vinyl
Closed-toe vamp, lightly padded footbed,
tucked under the bed at night, by day
their padding quiet as the fridge.
I admired their softness, their malleability
In harmony with my mother’s firmness,
Her tread determined but light.
No stomping, she’d tell me as, between books,
I roamed the house, looking for brother
Or sister to tease, shoeless and sockless,
Once stepping on a glass sliver from a cup
I’d broken. You’re a vilda chaya, she charged,
A wild animal. At the playground
I stalked around the sandbox with its concrete ledge,
A tiger, a grizzly, a monster conjured in the dark.
The day has woken up crabby,
Overcast, shedding gloom and then rain.
It suits my mood—rain always does.
Rose said to me once, you always loved the rain.
It was true, but I didn’t think she knew that about me.
Sometimes you don’t think your mother notices you,
Busy as she is with mopping floors, clothes shopping
For us all, wiping down counters, bleaching the laundry.
When her sisters call, they do most of the talking,
But they rely on Rose’s summing up, acquiescent
Murmuring, quick distinctions between right and wrong.
I said, she said, they said, such a nebbish and a gonif who thinks…
They went on with their stories. Usually Rose didn’t have one.
When I came home from school she said, there’s graham crackers
But don’t fill up on them. She never said
You won’t believe what happened to me today at the A&P…
When it rains I sit on the living room couch, careful
Not to spill crumbs or milk on its protective plastic shroud
And look out the picture window at my mother’s hollyhocks
and four o’clocks leaning against the foundation
and staring brazenly at passers-by. Rain doesn’t faze them.
They toss their heads like marriageable maidens in Victorian novels.
Rain comes down harder; the sky grimaces like King Lear.
Blow winds and crack your cheeks. rage! blow!
I wish for thunder and lightning. I bite my apple
(the seeds tucked into my palm), my book spread open on my stomach.
Electricity tickles the air inside and I brace for the show.
Karen Mandell has taught writing at the high school and college levels and literature at community senior centers. Her short story Goddess of Mercy is forthcoming from Notre Dame Review. She’s written Clicking, interconnected short stories, and Rose Has a New Walker, a book of poetry.